September 19, 2017
I watched with fascination as the second installment of the PBS Vietnam War “documentary” unfolded last night. The revisionist version of history continued. The “Riding the Tiger” episode dealt with the period 1961-63. With this installment the slippery slope to the eventual withdrawal in 1975 has begun as has the “waste” of lives and treasure.
The attempt to clothe the events of 1961 in new clothes was fascinating. Several theses are advanced: President Kennedy was a “victim” of history. Buddhist monks were continually immolating themselves. The South Vietnamese military were both cowards and incompetent. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were great warriors and nationalists. I could go on.
Some historians have argued for the last few years that President Kennedy would never have gone through the build-up that President Johnson did. The one comparison I found truly amazing was the President who was dynamic and went against his generals’ advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis followed the generals from a position of not wanting to appear “weak”.
This juxtaposition of the President as strong in one instance and weak in another shows the difficulty that historians are having to enhance the Kennedy image in spite of historical reality.
Kennedy went to Texas because he had to enhance the possibility of being re-elected in 1964. His play for the black vote was more of the same. In short, he was a political opportunist. Once the commander in Vietnam announced in 1963 that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel he may well have been appealing to the opportunist President. We will never know.
What we “learn” in this episode is that the United States backed totalitarian leaders and as a result we were doomed to fail. This documentary has not yet addressed the feelings of the many warriors who fought in Vietnam who believe their efforts and sacrifices were for naught.
Without acknowledging those deep wounds, the film’s attempts to heal the divisions created by the Vietnam War seem doomed to fail.